Obama’s silence on climate change is a serious ethical, political and leadership failure says legal scholar

By his silence, Obama fails to abide by provisions of international law that have been agreed to by all nations including the U.S.

No 559 Posted by fw August 31, 2012

Donald A. Brown

“As chief executive officer of the United States, the US President has the responsibility to assure that the nation to abide by its international obligations. The inability of the US President to convince the US Congress to pass climate change legislation is not an excuse for him or her to be silent on climate change as long as the United States could make progress in reducing its emissions through other means.”Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law

The following is a re-post of a piece by Professor Brown. I have added text highlighting, inline links in pace of endnote references, and subheadings to facilitate browsing. To read Brown’s  original post on his blog, click on the linked title.

The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change — A Serious Ethical Lapse? by Donald A. Brown, August 29, 2012

Obama silent ever since Congress failed to pass a climate bill in 2010

US President Obama has been silent on climate change for two years even when discussing related issues such as the severe drought affecting large parts of the United States.  With the exception of a Rolling Stone article in which President Obama was quoted as saying that he expected climate change to become an issue in the upcoming presidential election, nothing has been heard from the US President on climate change since the US Congress failed to pass a climate bill in 2010.

EPA’s efforts fall far short of US’ fair share of global emission reduction

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Obama administration has been somewhat quietly issuing regulations under the Clean Air Act that will create very modest US reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from some new stationary and mobile sources, yet these regulations will not come close to reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions. Although US EPA has today announced a new fleet fuel efficiency rule for US automakers that will double fleet efficiency by 2025, these rules will not produce overall US greenhouse emissions reductions congruent with levels the consensus scientific view has concluded are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

Few Americans comprehend the urgency and scale of the climate change threat

Although the majority of US citizens now believe climate change is human-caused according to recent polls, very few Americans seem to understand the civilization challenging scope of the problem, a fact that can be attributed to a failure of US political leadership.

Critics fault Obama for failing to make climate change a political issue

Several commentators have strongly criticized President Obama for failing to make climate change a political issue for the last two years.  For instance, Joe Romm of Climate Progress has frequently written critically about President Obama’s silence including a recent article entitled The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t.

Those criticizing US President Obama for failing to make climate change a high profile political issue in the last several years often point to the practical need to build a political mandate in the US to enact federal climate change legislation coupled with the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unless climate change is kept alive as a political issue, so the argument goes, no US congressional action is likely. And so the US White House silence on climate change has been criticized as a practical political failure to make progress on an issue about which the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous harms.

Brown insists Obama has an ethical “duty” to make climate change an issue

In addition to being a practical political failure, can the White House silence on climate change also be understood to be a serious ethical and moral failure even if legislative action is not likely because of the current political opposition by those who control Congress?  If the US President’s silence  is an ethical issue, then the President should talk about climate change not solely as a consideration in developing  political strategy, but because he has a duty to do so. A strong argument can be made that the failure of the head of state in a high-emitting country to encourage his or her country’s citizens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not just a practical political mistake but a serious ethical failure.

All nations have legally non-binding duties as signatories to international agreements including the UN Convention on Climate Change

This is so because, among other reasons, all nations have duties that they have expressly acknowledged in several international agreements including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from causing harm to others beyond their borders. In the UNFCCC, nations have agreed to:

  • Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).
  • The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).
  • The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent, or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).

These provisions of international law have been agreed to by all nations and establish clear national responsibilities for developed nations in particular to prevent harm from climate change to others beyond their jurisdiction, to help pay for damages of those beyond their borders who are harmed by domestic activities, and to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take protective action.  And so, the above international law provisions, among others, make it clear that nations have responsibilities, duties, and obligations to others to prevent climate change damage-caused harms.

Governments have ethical obligations demanded by the mandate “to not harm others”

In addition to these agreed to international norms almost all ethical theories require that individuals refrain from harming others without regard to where they are located. In addition almost all religions have versions of the Golden Rule that also create a mandate to not harm others. Because government action is a way for individuals to achieve their collective individual ethical responsibilities, governments should act in conformance with the obligations of individuals required by the Golden Rule.

US (and Canada) are harming others by emitting gases at a level that far exceeds their fair share

Climate change is a problem caused by some who are emitting greenhouse gases at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions. In addition, climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but a current problem which is already causing human deaths and harms to ecological systems around the world in the form of diseases, drought, floods, and damages from intense storms. In addition, the mainstream scientific view holds that the current harms to human health and ecological systems now visible will grow in the years ahead putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at great risk to harsh consequences.

Obama (and Harper) cannot shirk his personal duty by pointing the finger of blame at others

As chief executive officer of the United States, the US President has the responsibility to assure that the nation to abide by its international obligations. The inability of the US President to convince the US Congress to pass climate change legislation is not an excuse for him or her to be silent on climate change as long as the United States could make progress in reducing its emissions through other means.

Obama is missing in leadership action from many fronts

Without doubt, government leaders and especially the President could help citizens understand that responsible citizenship requires them to refrain from unnecessary or wasteful activities that create greenhouse gas emissions.  The US President could encourage US citizens, states, sub-national governments, organizations, and businesses to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint through voluntary actions, measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, development of plans that set voluntary targets for emissions reductions, and monitoring achievements.

The US President also could give positive publicity to individuals, local and regional governments, universities, businesses and organizations that achieve notable success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama should also speak up forcefully against the climate change disinformation campaign that is now well-documented while reminding Americans that the US Academy of Sciences has concluded at least four times over the last several decades that human-induced warming is a great risk to people and ecological systems around the world. (For a discussion of US Academy of Science Reports on climate change, see Brown 2011)

The US President should also help US citizens understand that reducing US greenhouse gas emissions is not only in the US interest but also something which is strongly required by ethics and justice. If he did this, he would help US citizens respond to those who oppose climate change policies on economic grounds alone, that in addition to US economic interests, Americans have responsibilities to the victims of climate change to prevent the harsh climate change impacts which  are predicted by mainstream science.

Not only has Obama failed to take the lead on climate change, his administration has been a barrier to progress

And so, US presidential leadership is urgently needed to help minimize the harm that US greenhouse gas emissions are now contributing to in parts of the world. Those who have followed international climate negotiations since they began in the late 1980s know that the US has not only failed to adopt a climate change national strategy that it could commit to help create a global solution to the global problem of human-induced warming but has often been a barrier in international negotiations seeking to achieve a just global solution.

Meanwhile, the problem gets worse – years of silence are years of missed opportunities

And so the failure of US national leadership on climate change is a significant ethical failure. Every day the US waits to take meaningful action to reduce the threat of climate change, the problem gets worse. Two years of silence, is two years of missed opportunity to begin to align US greenhouse emissions with US ethical obligations. The United States has failed for over 30 years since the US Academy of Sciences first warned Americans that human-induced climate change was a looming threat. (For a discussion of reports of the US Academy of Science, see Brown, 2011.) After 30 years of US inaction on climate change, the US President has a duty to loudly speak up and encourage US citizens to reduce the threat of climate change.

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One thought on “Obama’s silence on climate change is a serious ethical, political and leadership failure says legal scholar

  1. Through the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), U.S. government scientists are conducting world-class research on global climate change. The USGCRP is a collaborative effort involving 13 Federal agencies to evaluate the current and future impacts of climate change, inform policy-makers and the public about scientific findings, and investigate effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deploy cost-effective clean energy technology.

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